When I was a sophomore in college, imagining a semester abroad, the only place I could imagine myself was Israel. I had never been there, and honestly had not traveled much before. If someone had asked me why I felt so compelled in such a specific way, I probably could not have said something more than “it feels right.” I didn’t follow news very closely; I don’t remember knowing much about what was happening in Israel in October 2000, and so I really didn’t understand why my family didn’t want me to go. And that’s why, in the fall of 2000, I embarked on my first real foray into a relationship with Israel by applying and being admitted to Tel Aviv University.
I didn’t go. My family convinced me it wasn’t safe, I felt embarrassed about my ignorance of current events, and our compromise was my Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in May 2001 at the close of my junior year. We agreed that would be a safe option, and when my Hillel rabbi Ed Rosenthal, now director at Suncoast Hillels, called and told me I had been admitted to the trip, I felt that I had won the lottery.
My first trip to Israel blew my mind in all of the ways you hear about, and I came back to the United States with a deeper connection that was probably of the lust, not love variety. I finally had a real taste of how much I didn’t know, and it was overwhelming. Like many students I meet, I wasn’t open to diving in just yet, so I put it to the side to focus on my senior year of college and only dove into my own study and further trips once I began working for Hillel as a Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow.
My relationship with Israel, one where I have favorite places, read news articles, and wrestle with my own opinions did not come easily. These first experiences and my subsequent self-driven education guide my vision for Israel engagement as an essential piece of our Hillel work, where I seek to ask the questions and present the resources that allow every student to develop a deep and personal relationship with Israel.
At Hillel at Arizona State University, I am privileged to work with dedicated student leaders; some grew up with Israel knowledge and experience, some are just now exploring after their own Taglit-Birthright Israel experiences, and others haven’t yet embarked on the journey. As advisor to Sun Devils for Israel (SDI), I coach student leaders who are presenting a variety of ways for their peers to connect to Israel. When SDI organizes Israel Shabbat on the same weekend as a presentation from a local Congresswoman about her recent trip to Israel, and when they bring a counter-terrorism expert one week and partner with the LGBTA coalition the next week, they send the important message to ASU students that there are many doorways you can walk through to access Israel.
We have students on campus for such a short period of time. Many times a week I find myself saying to students, “Let’s face it. Understanding Israel is challenging. Building a relationship with a place is a strange request. Let’s keep going.” As with any passion, inspiring others to feel the same way can be a challenge. And yet we are succeeding by focusing on building relationships one by one, partnering with diverse campus groups and community organizations, creating meaningful educational opportunities, and sharing our stories. When I share mine, I always make sure to tell students I still have that Tel Aviv University acceptance letter sitting at home as a reminder of the start of my connection to Israel.
Debbie Yunker Kail has been the Executive Director of Arizona State University Hillel since summer 2013. She lives in Phoenix, AZ, with her husband, and enjoys supporting the local food movement (buying, cooking, and eating!), working out, exploring her new home, and traveling. Originally from Framingham, MA, Debbie holds a B.A. in psychology from Emory University and an M. A. in Higher Education Administration from New York University.